2010 CPU forecast: What's coming for desktop and mobile PCs

From mighty six-core desktop chips to minuscule smartbook processors, here's a look at what's in the CPU cards this year.

Each of the new chips features Intel's Turbo Boost technology (a feature inherent in the Nehalem microarchitecture), which enables them to dynamically vary their core operating frequency based on demand as long as they're running below their power, current and temperature limits. The Core i3 and Core i5 processors can dynamically vary the frequency of their integrated graphics cores in a similar fashion.

What's more, the new mobile processors can dynamically trade thermal budgets between the CPU core and the graphics core (a feature not supported on their desktop counterparts). If the computer is running a CPU-intensive application, for example, the processor will dial back the GPU to let the CPU run faster and hotter; likewise, if the computer is running a graphics-intensive application, the processor will dial back the CPU to give the GPU more thermal headroom.

Intel's new mobile processors will use the same graphics core as their desktop counterparts, so they'll offer all the same features, including support for DVI, dual simultaneous HDMI 1.3a, and DisplayPort interfaces, Blu-ray video decoding, and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks.

Netbook CPUs

No vendor seems prepared to challenge Intel on the netbook front this year -- AMD has nothing to offer, and Via's new Nano 3300-series CPUs are aimed at the desktop and thin-and-light markets. And even Intel itself has announced only one new Atom processor for this market segment.

The Atom N450 is a single-core processor with 512KB of L2 cache. It runs at 1.66 GHz with a 667-MHz front-side bus, and it supports hyperthreading. Like desktop-oriented Atom processors, the big news with the N450 is the integration of the memory controller into the CPU, which reduces the platform chip count from three to two. (Computerworld will be comparing four N450-based netbooks in an upcoming review.)

Smartbook CPUs

The outlook is quite different for smartbooks -- but offering any predictions about the smartbook market is nothing more than rank speculation, because this class of machine barely exists today. Smartbooks are expected to be smaller, lighter and cheaper than netbooks, and subsidies from cell-phone providers could even render them "free" -- provided you sign a long-term data-plan contract, of course.

It's widely speculated that ARM's Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors will become the CPUs of choice for the first generation of smartbooks. ARM doesn't build its own processors; instead it licenses its designs to other manufacturers who incorporate the designs into their own platforms. Cortex chips can currently be found in Freescale's i.MX515, Nvidia's Tegra series, Qualcomm's Snapdragon series and Texas Instruments' OMAP 3 series.

Designing a smartbook based on an ARM processor will entail trade-offs, according to some industry analysts. "ARM-based smartbooks can't run the desktop version of Windows," says Halfhill. "Instead, they will run Windows Mobile or GNU/Linux. My opinion is that most users will prefer a netbook that runs standard Windows apps, but others disagree. Apple could nudge the market in the ARM direction by introducing an iPhone-compatible smartbook."

Looking further out

AMD hopes to begin sampling its first 32nm CPUs later this year and to start shipping in bulk in 2011. The company expects to offer both a new high-end desktop microarchitecture, code-named Bulldozer, and a new low-power mobile microarchitecture, code-named Bobcat.

A single Bulldozer core will appear to the operating system as two cores, similar to Intel's hyperthreading scheme. The difference is that Bulldozer's two cores are based almost entirely in hardware.

AMD's first Bulldozer CPU, code-named Zambezi, will feature four to eight cores, which will appear to the operating system as eight to sixteen cores. Zambezi will be paired with an upcoming discrete graphics chip to form AMD's Scorpius platform for the enthusiast desktop market.

AMD also expects to finally ship its much-touted Fusion processor, which will be the first chip to combine a CPU and a GPU on a single die. (Intel's Arrandale and Clarkdale CPUs feature two dies in a single package.)

AMD calls its Fusion product an "accelerated processing unit" (APU). The first, code-named Llano, will combine up to four CPU cores with a DirectX 11-compatible graphics processor. Llano will be aimed at both the mainstream desktop market (as a component in AMD's Lynx platform) and the desktop-replacement and thin-and-light notebook markets (as a component in AMD's Sabine platform).

AMD's Bobcat microarchitecture will finally give the company products that can compete with Intel's Atom processor in the netbook market. Not much is known about Bobcat at this time, but AMD has revealed that two Bobcat cores will be used in its low-power APU, code-named Ontario. Ontario will be aimed at the ultrathin and netbook markets (as a component in AMD's Brazos platform).

Intel won't be standing still either, and it has already announced that it intends to introduce a new microarchitecture (the next "tick" in its ongoing execution strategy), code-named Sandy Bridge, later this year. Intel has not released much official information about Sandy Bridge, other than to say that it will use the 32nm manufacturing process introduced with Westmere and that it will feature a graphics core on the same die as the processor core -- which makes it sound a lot like AMD's Fusion. It's been widely reported in the enthusiast press and on tech-rumor Web sites, however, that Sandy Bridge will include four CPU cores.

Via Technologies declined to provide a longer-term road map for its CPU business, but the company is likely to continue to plug along in its niche markets. ARM Holdings also declined to comment on future products, but at CES, several of the company's licensees announced new products based on its existing CPU architectures. Marvell Technology Group Ltd. announced the first quadcore CPU based on the ARM instruction set, for example, and Nvidia Corp. announced that its next-generation Tegra system-on-a-chip (SoC) would feature a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU with a clock speed as high as 1 GHz.

AMD won't pose much of a threat to Intel's dominance in either the desktop or notebook CPU markets in 2010, but neither company has a strong portfolio when it comes to smartbooks and other ultramobile devices: Intel sold its handheld mobile CPU division to Marvell in 2006, and AMD sold its handheld business to Qualcomm Inc. in early 2009. And that leaves ARM in a very strong position for at least the next year or so.

Michael Brown, a freelance journalist living in northern California, has been writing about computers and technology since 1987.

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